Total immersion

Total immersion

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, dedication to doctrine is the way to live life
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Frank Bentayou
Plain Dealer Reporter
D.C. Jones vividly remembers being dunked underwater 53 years ago.

And Darcell Williams says her immersion in a portable pool this month was an experience she, too, will not forget.

They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses recalling the key symbolic experience in their spiritual lives — their baptism.

A single message emerges: Theirs is a faith that demands what most Americans would consider great personal sacrifice.

Jones, 88, says that since his baptism in 1953, when he was 35, he has sought to “read the Bible at least one hour every day” and to “witness to others” whenever he has the opportunity.

And 17-year-old Darcell, a 2006 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, says she can imagine nothing more important in her life than the mission of a Witness.

That duty, she says, is to communicate — to as many people as possible — her belief that the Bible provides answers to many of life’s questions.

Sometimes the answers Witnesses find put them dramatically at odds with mainstream society.

A widely known example is how, historically, most members rejected blood transfusions, even when doing so meant risking life. The church has clarified its stance – members now may receive certain blood products (instead of whole blood).

Despite the recent interpretation regarding blood, Jones maintains that he and most Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible – and its informed study – can yield “all that we need to know in life.”

Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses – 6.6 million worldwide, including a little more than a million in the United States and less than 20,000 in Northeast Ohio – dedicate what others consider free time to studying the Bible and taking its messages of salvation and hope to nonmembers in their communities.

That includes strangers members may approach on the street or in their homes.

“We don’t just belong to a church. We go out from our homes and Kingdom Halls [the religion’s worship and meeting centers] and ‘make disciples of all the nations,’ ” Witness Jim Roach says, quoting Matthew 28:19 in the New Testament.

At a recent gathering of area members – and across a gulf of 71 years’ age difference – Jones and Darcell shared their feelings and experiences regarding their commitment to their religion.

Jones, dapper, focused and hardworking, dedicates 70 hours a month to the person-to-person ministry for which his denomination is known. Often working with fellow Witnesses, he knocks on doors in his neighborhood and others in Cleveland and its suburbs.

Before retiring, Jones worked as a letter carrier, and he remains fit enough to keep active in what his church considers a 2,100-year-old tradition of face-to-face Christian evangelism.

“We think of it as practicing the same approach Jesus and his apostles used,” he says.

A gathering of Witnesses

Jones and Darcell sit in a windowless basement room at the Cleveland State University Wolstein Center, where Roach and other church members, all men in dark suits, white shirts and ties, linger to hear their conversation.

In the arena’s levels above, some 7,500 Witnesses have gathered for an annual district convention to sing, read the Bible and listen to lectures and testimony from senior and learned members, called elders, as well as a few other members who step up to microphones to tell their stories.

Witnesses from Ohio and neighboring states have been meeting in the CSU arena each weekend in July. Today and Sunday are the final days of this assembly, which also includes the baptism of dozens of new members.

“We consider baptism a very public display of our faith and commitment,” says Roach, spokesman for the district committee. The denomination’s meetings, he emphasizes, “are freely open to anyone. We don’t turn anybody away.”

Kingdom Halls, too, invite nonmembers to Bible discussions and lectures.

Jones, a Georgia native, settled in Cleveland in 1945 after serving in the South Pacific during World War II.

He had grown up a Baptist. When he began working here, he started looking for “some enlightenment from the Scriptures,” he says.

He remembers hearing other Christians tell him that they had been hopeless sinners before turning to God for salvation, and, without that, they would be doomed to an eternity in hell. Jones says he wondered why “a loving God would take his highest creation – which man is supposed to be” – and condemn all to damnation “if they didn’t get the word.”

He began attending a Kingdom Hall, then on East 108th Street near Cedar Avenue in Cleveland, “because the Jehovah’s Witnesses had this message of a loving God. That’s one of the things I liked.”

Joining the denomination required him to study the Bible with others and consider the depth of his commitment. More than seven years passed before he felt ready to be baptized.

Roach explains that such a protracted period between introduction and baptism is the norm. “People who come to us,” he says, “take up a personal study of the Bible” and consider how they will conduct their own evangelism once they are members.

Learning to spread God’s word

To carry the religious message, Jehovah’s Witnesses must learn to overcome any reticence. Congregations hold weekly meetings where experienced Witnesses help newer members structure their messages, engage outsiders and practice courtesy and clear, convincing delivery.

Many Witnesses attend special training sessions that help them overcome any unease they have about knocking on doors, with the denomination’s Watchtower and Awake publications in hand, to address people about their own acceptance of the church’s doctrines and, especially, to urge them to study the Bible.

“These sessions help them learn how to approach people and communicate their messages, how to witness to strangers,” Roach says.

Darcell plans to continue the training she already has begun at Cleveland’s Hayden Congregation and other Kingdom Halls because, she says, “I want to help spread the word of Jehovah.”

Already poised and a good student, the young woman plans to enroll in the Cuyahoga Community College registered-nurse program at the Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland this fall.

“It [college] may take me a little longer,” she says, “because I want to become a pioneer.” A pioneer, one of the three levels of ministry within the denomination, requires further Bible study and learning more about how to witness effectively to others.

Darcell will attend her pioneer sessions at a Kingdom Hall on Superior Avenue in Cleveland, learning techniques, often through role-playing exercises with more experienced church members and elders, who then critique the efforts and suggest changes in substance, delivery or style.

Most of the teaching and sharing of traditions falls to elders. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t organize their congregations around an official clergy. “We’re all clergy, in a way,” Darcell says.

Roach explains that elders and others well-versed in Scripture often lead or facilitate discussions at some of the three-times-a-week meetings at Kingdom Halls or in smaller groups in members’ homes.

“But everybody is encouraged to participate,” he says. “Children, too, may ask about” passages in the Bible or lend their opinions, the same as others present, whether baptized Witnesses or not.

“We’re open to all,” he says, referring to a central feature of this little-understood denomination.

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